Column: Safety standards at Europe’s nuclear reactors re-assessed

Ali Haider, Aula Europe

Among the many consequences of the recent tradegy in Japan has been the EU decision to re-evaluate the safety standards and resilience of European nuclear power plants. The EU’s Commissioner for Energy, Gunther Oettinger, hastily summoned a meeting of ministers, diplomats, regulators and representatives of energy companies who operate nuclear reactors in Brussels on 15 March to discuss carrying out ‘stress tests’ on nuclear power plants in Europe.

The meeting was followed by a lively debate with MEPs at the European Parliament where Oettinger announced that the decision to introduce stress tests had been adopted without any opposition and the details of which would be determined at a further meeting in April.

The following week, on 21 March, another special meeting of the EU’s energy ministers took place in Brussels to discuss the tests. It was agreed that the safety assessments will be defined and adopted by June and should be carried out during the second half of the year. However the tests would be made on a voluntary basis since nuclear safety is an area of shared competence between the EU and its Member States.

Nuclear industry representatives declared they were ready to contribute to such an initiative by defining safety criteria and by assisting in the implementation of those tests in cooperation with national safety authorities. It was also confirmed that the European Commission wishes to include neighbouring countries, such as Russia and Turkey, under the scope of the stress tests.

Following all this high-level activity it has become clear that European Commission will want to take a more active role in the regulation of nuclear safety in Europe. The Commission would also like to see the role of ENSREG (the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group) enhanced. A more prominent role for these two institutions creates a conundrum.

On the one hand the Commission wants more oversight of national regulators which may impinge on their independence and limit their room for manoeuvre, and on the other hand a stronger role for ENSREG entails a strengthened role for national regulators. Indeed, following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year the Commission’s intent on ‘regulating the regulators’ of oil exploration and production was not well-received by Member States’ authorities who felt their competencies were being undermined.

In light of this, the precautionary measures the EU is enacting in the immediate future in the form of the stress tests should be placed within a broader context. Fukushima has changed the rules of the game. The Commission will not only want to galvanise the Nuclear Safety Directive adopted 2009, as well as likely bring forward the Directive’s mid-term review which had been scheduled for 2014, but is also likely to propose new legislation in the field of nuclear liability as a result of the Fukushima accident. Whatever the form of legislation, we can surely expect more of it.

Ali Haider
Aula Europe